Some people may view Abraham Lincoln’s expansion of executive powers, in particular his suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, as a blot on his presidency. Albany Law School professor Paul Finkelman, however, would beg to differ.
“Lincoln needed to suspend habeas corpus because at that time there was no other alternative,” said Finkelman, referring to the legal action which requires any person under arrest to be brought before a judge or into court, ensuring that they are not unlawfully imprisoned. “Confederate sympathizers were blowing up bridges and tearing up railroad tracks. There were no federal police, no FBI, no one to prevent people from doing these things. And, the Constitution sets out two very special times when habeas corpus can be suspended — during an actual invasion or a rebellion. So, in fact, Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus illustrates how the Constitution can protect the nation in extraordinary times.”
Tuesday morning at the Bulmer Telecommunications Center on the campus of Hudson Valley Community College, Finkelman will offer a presentation titled “How a Railroad Lawyer Became the Great Emancipator.”
The talk is being held in conjunction with the traveling exhibit “Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War,” put together by the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and the American Library Association. The exhibit, funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, will be on display through Feb. 28 at HVCC’s Marvin Library Learning Commons.
“The response to Lincoln’s actions during the Civil War is often tainted by present-day politics,” said Finkelman, a Syracuse University graduate who went on to get his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. “For example, after 9/11 people were talking about how President Bush wasn’t going to have trials for those arrested for terrorism. They said that his administration’s actions were a bad result of Lincoln suspending habeas corpus during the Civil War.
“My response is just the opposite,” said Finkelman, whose official title is President William McKinley Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy and Senior Fellow at Albany Law School. “On 9/11 there really wasn’t an invasion or a rebellion, and all the terrorists were dead. Lincoln had a mayor in Baltimore who was a Confederate sympathizer, and he had other Confederate sympathizers who were acting like terrorists. He had a rebellion going on. To me, Lincoln acted very judiciously, and I think he holds up pretty well, better than people realize, when it comes to civil liberties.”
Lincoln, according to Finkelman, fares better in this debate than his counterpart, Jefferson Davis.
“The Confederacy was much more oppressive toward its citizenry,” he said. “There were many more people arrested in the South for sedition than in the North. Lincoln is far more concerned about civil liberties than Jeff Davis, and ultimately, all the people he arrested and took out of circulation were eventually let go when they were no longer harmful to the Union.”
The traveling exhibit addresses that issue in particular with one section called “Dissent: In a National Crisis Would Civil Liberties Be Secure?” Other themes addressed in the exhibit include “Bound: How Can a Country Founded on the Belief That All Men Are Created Equal Tolerate Slavery” and “Divided: Are We a Single Nation or a Confederacy of Sovereign and Separate States?”
The exhibit also includes the story of the Dred Scott Decision, a ruling issued by Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney in 1857 that said the U.S. government had no power to regulate slavery in the territories, and that people of African descent, both slave and free, were not protected by the Constitution and were not U.S. citizens.
Finkelman has written and lectured extensively on the Dred Scott Decision, and wrote a book on the subject, “Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History With Documents,” published in 1997.
“It was justified in the sense that Taney’s opinion was that black people could never be citizens of the United States,” said Finkelman. “I think that is wrong. Free black people had been citizens of the U.S. earlier and had been eligible to vote in six states. But in the sense that the Constitution protected slavery, Taney is right. We don’t like to think about it today, but the fact is that the Constitution was pro-slavery, and Taney was trying to solve the problem of slavery in favor of the slave owners. He came from the South, he always supported slavery and he was deeply racist.”